Thursday, April 17, 2014

First Page Anonymous Submission–Whisper Creek

Jordan Dane

Here’s an anonymous submission for comments, entitled WHISPER CREEK. Enjoy and my feedback will be on the flip side.

Excerpt: Whisper Creek
The bullets whizzed by his head. How they missed him—he did not know. The night became a blanket of darkness—no light. Mark couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. The only light came from the intermittent flashes from the end of the muzzles pointed at them from somewhere up ahead. He squeezed off several shots from his M16 rifle, then nothing.


Gunpowder filled his nostrils. An uncomfortable premonition of fear pervaded his senses.He blinked sweat from his eyes.

Keep it together.

Mark pushed the magazine release with his thumb, inserted another twenty round mag, and pressed the slide release. Locked and loaded. He saw a flash of light up ahead followed by another. Mark steadied the weapon on the meaty part of his shoulder, aimed, and waited. He focused his attention at what lay ahead—the enemy—Charlie—the Vietcong.

When he saw another flash, he fired several rounds at the target. No more flash. The platoon of Marines continued to fight…no matter the outcome they must push forward. Never retreat—never surrender.

Through the noises of gunfire, men screamed in agony from being shot, but the unit continued to move through the jungle. Then a fire settled into his right thigh like a hot poker. Mark realized he’d been shot, but pressed on despite the pain. They all knew what happened to Prisoners of War in Vietnam. A quick death in the jungle would surely be more humane than being tortured by sadistic men in a camp. The warm liquid snaked down his leg, but he refused to stop. If he did, he might lose the momentum to keep going.

Ring…ring…ring. Had those sounds penetrated the darkness? Light began to infiltrate the blackness in the distance. Ring…ring…ring. The noises of gunfire faded. The pain subsided.


1.) Bullets whizzed by his head - Think about how this must feel. The noise. The chaos. His not so lucky buddies getting hit around him. In the dark, can he even see what’s going on around him? Does he feel alone in his push to follow his last known orders or is he blindly following others? Every time he moves, he risks getting killed. What’s driving him? My best advice is for the author to stay in the moment and not follow this first line with cliched phrases that take the reader from the immediacy of the battlefield. “How they missed him—he did not know” and “the night became a blanket of darkness—no light (redundant)” dilute what could be an embracing opener. Stay long enough in the moment to put the reader fully in it with their senses.

2.) To convey the chaos of battle, it might be good to shorten the sentences with the bare essence of how Mark is thinking – quick short staccato spurts, rapid fire like the bullets screaming by his ear. The line “the only light came from…” is an example of a description that strikes me as too long to convey the intensity.

3.) M16 is enough of an explanation. Adding M16 rifle reads as redundant, given that Mark is an experienced soldier.

Gunpowder filled his nostrils – I’m sure the author intended for this to be the stench, but I am visually seeing his nose filled with black gunpowder.

An uncomfortable premonition of fear pervaded his senses – I’m not sure a premonition can be considered part of the 5 senses since it refers to a 6th sense. Rather than “tell” the reader that he’s feeling fear and it’s uncomfortable, it would be better to “show” the reader how Mark reacts to the dark notion that he’s marked or the next bullet is his. How does fear manifest in this guy? Does he develop worsening symptoms of an anxiety attack from the start to the finish of this opener…until he wakes up from his presumably troubling PTSD riddled sleep?

Never retreat—never surrender I have to admit my thoughts went immediately to Galaxy Quest. Anyone else? (I’m sure it’s just geek me.)

Through the noises of gunfire – This read as awkward to me and it’s repeated in the last lines as well. A distinctive phrase like this would be easily noticed as repetitive. Gunfire is a plural noise, not noises. 

A common thing I am seeing in this opener is leaping around with images, rather than sticking with a logical progression and flow to the action. For example, “Gunpowder filled his nostrils. An uncomfortable premonition of fear pervaded his senses.He blinked sweat from his eyes.” We move from the stench, to the bad feeling, to sweat. (This leaping can be seen in the 2nd to last paragraph as well where we too quickly move from gunfire, men dying/screaming, Mark shot, POWs & torture, then back to his leg wound.)

The author would do better to view the battle from behind the eyes of Mark and follow him through the scene, staying within his senses in a natural flow. I would recommend the author look up “PTSD” or “anxiety” disorder symptoms and build them into this scene in a subtle way so Mark builds the intensity of his reactions through the opener until he can’t take it anymore. Symptoms could include: Panic, losing control, chest pain, dizziness, hyperventilation, hot flashes, chills, trembling/intense shaking, nausea/stomach cramps, the feeling of being distanced from what’s going on. Pick the ones that would work best and build them into the scene until the reader realizes/feels his mounting affliction.

Ring…ring…ring. Had those sounds penetrated the darkness? Light began to infiltrate the blackness in the distance. Ring…ring…ring. The noises of gunfire faded. The pain subsided – I’m not a fan of noises being described like this – ring, ring, ring. Anyone else feel the same? In this instant, it does not appear to be Mark’s POV. It’s like an omniscient narrator is observing him from outside his body and making sure the reader knows something is ringing. Would Mark be so aware? I doubt it. I imagine where this is going is Mark wakes up from his flashback or nightmare to the shrill sound of a phone. To someone sleeping, how would that come across more realistically?

If war is hell, so is writing. Thanks to this brave submitter. An exciting scene of being in a battlefield would capture my attention if the author savored the rich sensory experiences and not rush it. The author’s instincts to begin here seem right if the execution could be improved a bit. What say you, TKZers?


  1. To Jordan's comments, I'd add this: Watch out for what Sol Stein calls 1 + 1 = 1/2. That's where you describe something twice (or more) in the same sentence or paragraph. The descriptions end up diluting each other, not adding to the power. Thus we have:

    The night became a blanket of darkness

    —no light.

    Mark couldn’t see his hand in front of his face.

    The "--no light" phrase is redundant, so cut it. The night "became" implies time passing, so I'd cut that one, too. That leaves us with the last image, but it's a bit of a cliche. Maybe work on that one, give us a fresh way of saying the same thing.

    An opening battle scene obviously has great potential, so each descriptive choice needs to be as fresh and vivid as possible. Thanks for your submission.

    1. Thanks, Jim. I agree an opening battle scene, even if it's a flashback, has great potential as an opener if it's vivid enough to put the reader there.

  2. I agree with everything said by Jordan and Jim. I did find the scene to be vivid despite the issues they've pointed out. I particularly like Jordan's suggestion to convey something specific about PTSD in the scene, to foreshadow whatever current-day battle the main character is facing in his life. Thank you, Writer, for the first page!

    1. I like the foreshadow idea, Kathryn. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  3. Ditto everything Jordan already aptly pointed out. If you are starting out with such a huge action moment as a battle, you MUST stay firmly in the intimate POV for maximum emotional impact. Think of a mini-cam mounted to the solider's helmet seeing everything he sees, hears all that he hears. Then add a heart monitor to record his fear. Don't levitate up into that omniscent POV where it's you, the writer, filtering the action and emotions.

    One other thing...Look at this passage:
    "Through the noises of gunfire, men screamed in agony from being shot, but the unit continued to move through the jungle. Then a fire settled into his right thigh like a hot poker."

    You start out this graph in omniscient POV and then drop into that the moment when the man gets shot! It is your "BAM!" moment yet it is buried and thus diluted of its impact. You need something more visceral:

    A sudden searing hot pain shot through his thigh.
    He was hit.

    And as Jordan said, if he is shot, I really think his thoughts would be more staccato, fractured, fearful. You have him awfully coherent, thoughtful, detached. And again, you've levitated up to omni POV:

    "Mark realized he’d been shot, but pressed on despite the pain. They all knew what happened to Prisoners of War in Vietnam. A quick death in the jungle would surely be more humane than being tortured by sadistic men in a camp. The warm liquid snaked down his leg, but he refused to stop. If he did, he might lose the momentum to keep going."

    He MIGHT think about getting captured but words like "surely" and "humane" would never enter this man's head. The thoughts must be sharp, fractured, emotional and quick. You have to get in the head of a man who has just taken a bullet in his leg and has never in his life ever felt that sensation before.

    And I don't understand the ring-ring-ring thing. It reads like a telephone but I THINK you are implying he is losing consciousness? Dunno...very confusing.

    1. I love your mini cam description, Kris. Spot on. Your observations are very good insight into this inteo, as well as for writing in general. Thank you.

  4. One more small thing: Be careful of your gun references. I had an M16 reference in a book once and ran it by a friend who had been in Vietnam. I had almost everything wrong. One thing: There is no real smell of gunpowder to them. If anything, they have a weird after-burn smell of ammonia, my friend said. Also, unlike some guns that click-click when empty, an empty M16 doesn't do anything. It just locks but it does so with a distinctive sound...sort of like "SHUNK." Maybe that could be used? Anytime you can get little details into an action scene, it makes it come alive in the reader's senses.

    I never put in a gun reference without running it by my expert. Learned my lesson the hard way...

    1. Yes, good point. I thought the gun references sounded like a stilted formal wikipedia description rather than one a real expert might say. On areas that matter, I like to use experts too. Well said.

  5. As a veteran of Vietnam and someone who's been in a firefight, this seemed to writerly. I think the advice about staying in the moment is good.

    I was a Navy Corpsman with Charlie Med, Third Battalion, Third Marines. Assuming the heat of battle. When someone is shot in the leg, one of two things happen. If it misses the bone, the marine may not even notice until they see the blood. If it hits the bone, the marine is likely to face down on the ground immediately. Not always, of course.

    1. Excellent insight, Brian. Thank you. Again, there is nothing like hands on experience to build emotional layers to an important scene. Thank you.

  6. Just noticed the typo - rats. Should be too in the second line.

    1. You are absolved. Go and sin no more, my son.

  7. I see a writer who is taking chances here, but relatively new at the game. Bravo for taking those chances because, in my opinion, you're developing your voice by doing so.

    I'm not a fan of opening with action scenes before the reader has a chance to know or care about the character but someones the character's goal, if interesting or unusual, will help the reader to identify with the character. Getting out alive or winning a battle isn't a strong or unusual enough goal for me however.

    I'd watch out for overuse of sentence fragments. I can say this because I am a former Queen of Sentence Fragments, but my first writing mentor de-throned me...and she was right. My fragments had become a writing tic. Of course, some authors can use them really well - E. Annie Proulx, in THE SHIPPING NEWS, for example. Since I'm not Proulx, I use them sparingly, although I still use them.

    I agree with those who have said that making the scene more immediate, with more sensory details, and sticking right in the head of the character, are really important. As well, in a few places, the writer uses general words rather than spicy specifics (e.g.,
    premonition of fear....words of emotion can be a warning sign that you're not close enough to the character and what the character is experiencing, as well.)

    The Watching Syndrome - another way to make the scene more immediate is to dump The Watching Syndrome. You don't need to tell the reader that the character is seeing something or hearing something, etc., once you've established a close POV.

    However, I think making the reader care about the character, at least by introducing a goal earlier on, are even more important.

    As for the "ring...ring...ring"? I've seen it (can't remember where) work well, and I'm trying to figure out why it worked there for me, but doesn't work here. I vaguely recall that it worked for me elsewhere because the repeated sounds were introduced, rather than coming out of nowhere.

    Perhaps too much name repetition - can distance the reader. We know we're in Mark's head, so repeating his name isn't all that necessary anyway.

    The writer has only used "begin" once, but this might be a picky point to watch out for. I call it The Starting Syndrome. A better verb might solve the problem.

    If this is a debut author (and I suspect it is), then I'd advise starting the story somewhere else, partly because this opening doesn't raise a story question, and partly because so many agents are biased against opening with battle or action scenes unless they truly are exceptionally well done.

    What I see in this excerpt is a writer with talent and an emerging authorial voice who, like most of us, needs to study more about the craft and story and scene structure. But since so many manuscripts don't reveal any attempt to find one's voice, I say, "Bravo."

    1. I agree with your last graph, Cheryl. I tend to pick on the things that need help and neglect to say what is good. I do like the immediate immersion into the action of this opening. Definitely no throat-clearing going on here!

  8. I loved the action. Agreed with comments. Great critique is such a valuable tool for writers.

    1. Thank you, Frances. I get as much from critiquing & participating in a discussion. Our community of writers here at TKZ always are supportive.

  9. I agree with all the above comments. I also thought the 'blanket of darkness" and "no light" was redundant. There were many cliches too. I agree that the "ring, ring, ring" was jarring. I thought as other did, this was a telephone interrupting his flashback, or dream. If it is a dream, that is more cliche. It is my understanding that opening with a dream is not meant with favor by editors. In any case, whether dream or flashback, we are in a deep point of view from Mark. It is an intense action scene. If he is that immersed into it, the ringing would not register as such. If I am being awakened, I am not going to recognize a ring. It could be a buzz or some other noise. I would have to become more awake to be aware of a ringing. I think the author is telling the reader that Mark is jarred from his thoughts. Rather than the author tells us, Mark should tell us. I recognize this because as a beginner myself, I have to watch this in my own writing. It is easy to slip out of the correct point of view for a "newbie." Good premise though. It has promise.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Rebecca. Well said.

  10. I can't believe I did that--"meant" should be met.

  11. Great analysis and comments here. Rich food for thought and good questions to pose when editing an action scene.

    I think the reader needs acquire a sense of feeling about our MC guy. "Guy in peril" is not enough. My goal with this would be to inject the reader into this dangerous scene by triggering the reader's senses and maximizing the sensation of immediacy. My intent with a scene like this would be to throw the reader down the stairs of peril.

    Therefore anything that might remove the reader from this state, should be avoided. You're either in or your out. Back and forth does not work, unless you shift POV to a different character. But certainly not to the top-down eye-in-the-sky viewpoint, which is the dreaded telling.

    All of your comments will send me back to the editing table . . . yet again. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Adam. The discussion here today is a good reminder for all of us. I like your "stairs of peril" imagery. Well said.

  12. Thanks everyone for your feedback. I needed to know how I could improve the chapter. Your comments will help as I go back and make these changes. Jordan, thank you for posting my chapter on The Kill Zone.

  13. Love you guys. Love this blog. So honest, yet spot on helpful to a aspiring fiction writer. Thanks for the lesson. :-)